Reaffirming what North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) have been saying for decades now, a new study has found that construction workers across the southern United States receive little to no employment benefits and have relatively low pay.
The Workers Defense Project report found that 40% of construction workers in Houston had no health insurance, retirement savings, paid vacations or sick leave. More than 30% were not offered breaks during the day and reported that their employer did not provide drinking water on the job. Only 5% of the 1,435 workers interviewed in six Southern states said workers’ compensation covered the cost of their work injuries, and 57% said they earned less than $15 an hour.
The results of this study reinforce the story of the “low road” business model that has taken root in the U.S. construction industry, particularly across the southern U.S. On one hand, contractors across the country continually express frustration about burgeoning skilled-labor shortages, but then when you pull back the curtain and examine the business practices laid out in the Workers Defense Project report, it is easy to understand why there are difficulties in certain parts of the nation to attract people into careers in the skilled trades.
To be sure, average hourly wages for American construction workers, adjusted for inflation, have been in decline since the late 1970s.
NABTU has long argued that if the economics of the industry were adjusted upward, the problems associated with workforce development and skilled craft labor shortages would dissipate. In areas where the economics are enticing – such as the major metropolitan areas of the Northeast and Midwest – there is tremendous interest in careers in the skilled trades, so much so that it is not uncommon to see hundreds of people camping out on sidewalks for days at a time just for the opportunity to secure an application to a building trades union apprenticeship program.
Unfortunately, the Workers Defense Project report underscores the fact that, at least in the South, many companies aren’t making the necessary changes in compensation and workplace culture to be an attractive option for new entrants into the skilled construction trades. All too often, the short-sighted focus is to target labor as a place to cut costs in order to see a bigger profit or to win work as low bidders.
In an example of this strategy taken to the extreme, a recent report from the nonprofit group Polaris said that from 2007 to 2016, it received 550 reports of slave labor conditions in the U.S. construction industry. Polaris reported that small residential and commercial contractors are the most likely to perpetrate “slave labor” levels of exploitation. This includes mis-classifying employees as “independent contractors” so that employers don’t have to pay them benefits or cover them with workers’ compensation insurance.